Experts' Articles

Disruption or Displacement? Exploring the impact of the Ukraine conflict on drug trafficking in South Eastern Europe

Ruggero Scaturro is a Senior Analyst at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) and Drugs and Development Task Force Member. Ruggero Scaturro conducts research on Eastern and South Eastern Europe, as well as Italian mafia-related issues. His primary areas of interest and expertise include drugs trafficking and consumption habits in Europe, as well as the history of the Cosa Nostra and its ties with other criminal networks across the Mediterranean. In his recent report, Ruggero Scaturro sheds light on the potential repercussions of the war in Ukraine on established drug trafficking routes though South Eastern European countries. This piece delves into how this situation might contribute to the instability of the illicit drug markets in the region.

When we think about the drug trade and its global impact, South Eastern Europe (SEE) might not be the first region that comes to mind. SEE represents a relatively small market for drug use and contributes minimally to drug production and supply, with cannabis being the primary export to EU markets. However, don't let its modest reputation fool you. SEE's strategic position nestled between the East and West, coupled with its proximity to the Ukraine conflict, could make it a hotspot for shifts in drug trafficking methods and routes across the region.

 

Recent research conducted by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) has raised important flags regarding the consequences of the Ukraine conflict on the global drug trade. The conflict has the potential to reshape existing drug trafficking pathways within Ukraine and exacerbate the instability that fuels drug trafficking and manufacturing. This instability might extend its tendrils into regions not directly linked to the hostilities. Moreover, the psychological trauma inflicted by the conflict could be one of the factors influencing current and future patterns of drug use in communities affected by the war, opening new opportunities for local and foreign drug traffickers to meet a rising demand. This concern becomes especially pertinent when we consider the movement of traditional opioids, new psychoactive substances (NPS), and stimulants, which are used by both civilians and soldiers on the front lines.

 

The increased military presence in Eastern Europe has disrupted traditional drug flows, pushing some routes into unexpected directions. As a prime example, the war has significantly disrupted the flow of heroin along the Northern route through Central Asia, resulting in a severe scarcity of the substance in Ukraine. Consequently, retail prices of heroin in the country have soared, reaching as high as €90 per gram. Many heroin users have turned to 'street methadone' and other synthetic opioids to cope with this scarcity. Additionally, the shift in heroin flows might lead to a surge in heroin trafficking through the south of the Caucasus, with Georgian ports serving as departure points. From there, it could enter SEE via Romania and Bulgaria, and continue its journey through the 'Balkan Route,' crossing Turkey, Bulgaria, and the Western Balkans, end route to Central and Western Europe. This hypothesis gains credibility from the increased number of heroin seizures along the pre-Balkan route, particularly at the border between Turkey and Bulgaria. The potential increase in heroin flows along the Balkan route could have unpredictable effects on wholesale and retail prices in key countries like Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Serbia.

Port of Odessa (Unsplash - OBV _design)

Similar trends are mirrored in international cocaine flows. Following the Russian naval blockade and the suspension of Ukrainian ports, particularly Odesa, which was a prominent cocaine entry point pre-invasion, the availability of cocaine in the Ukrainian market plummeted, resulting in a staggering 40% price hike from pre-war levels. However, Ukrainian authorities report that since April 2023, cocaine traffickers seem to have found alternative routes to meet local demand, supported by an uptick in cocaine seizures at western and southwestern borders of Ukraine, especially with Slovakia, Poland, and Romania. To further validate this theory, retail prices have begun to approach pre-invasion levels once again. Initial findings hint that more and more cocaine shipments arriving at SEE ports may be redirected eastward to supply Ukraine, in contrast to the previous trend of westward supply to EU markets. In light of these developments, it's imperative for border police and customs officials working at crossings between Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania to bolster security measures and data collection efforts to keep a watchful eye on potential new routes and concentrate their efforts where they matter most.

 

Additionally, in the realm of criminal mobility, overwhelmed border security management between Ukraine and its western neighbours presents opportunities for both Ukrainian and Russian drug trafficking organizations to thrive in South Eastern Europe. This is due to their ability to forge documents and obtain 'golden' passports through their investments in regional countries. Given these shifts, closely monitoring emerging trends in illicit drug movements and analysing data from drug-related offenses in Ukraine and South Eastern Europe will be crucial in predicting shifts and providing guidance to law enforcement agencies.

 

In conclusion, the repercussions of the Ukraine conflict on drug trafficking in South Eastern Europe are far-reaching and multifaceted. While SEE may not be a major player in the global drug trade, its strategic location and proximity to the conflict zone make it a critical region to watch as drug traffickers adapt to changing circumstances. Understanding these dynamics is essential for both regional stability and international drug enforcement efforts. Stay tuned as we continue to explore the evolving landscape of drug trafficking in SEE and beyond.

Read the complete report by Ruggero Scaturro, a member of the Drug and Development Task Force, titled “Disruption or displacement? Impact of the Ukraine war on drug markets in South Eastern Europe.This comprehensive report provides an in-depth analysis of the emerging drug flow trends (heroin, cocaine, cannabis, and synthetic drugs) and examines how the war in Ukraine impacts these dynamic drug markets.   

 

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* The statements reflect exclusively the opinions of the author and not that of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH or the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).